Chief Rabbi’s Denunciation of Anti-Semitism Signals Reckoning Over Faith in UK Election

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left, and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn take part in a vigil at Guildhall Yard in London, Monday Dec. 2, 2019, to remember the London attack victims and honor members of the emergency services and bystanders who fought the attacker. London Bridge reopened to cars and pedestrians Monday, three days after a man previously convicted of terrorism offenses stabbed two people to death and injured three others before being shot dead by police. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Religion and politics don’t usually mix in the United Kingdom, with the British averse to faith leaders endorsing or opposing specific politicians at election time. But a Dec. 12 national election, ostensibly called to settle divisions over Brexit, has brought denunciations from the country’s top religious figures aimed at expunging discrimination based on faith, particularly anti-Semitism.

Last week Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the country’s Orthodox Jews, made an unprecedented intervention, condemning the Labour Party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for his track record on anti-Semitism ahead of the Dec. 12 national election.

In an article in The Times, Mirvis wrote that the Jewish community was deeply anxious about the prospect of Corbyn’s election as prime minister, given a series of incidents which made them believe that he had failed to stand up against anti-Semitism, including within his own party, and his connections with people well-known for their antipathy to Jews and to Israel.

“How complicit in prejudice would a leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition (the official term for the largest party not in office) have to be to be considered unfit for office?” he asked.

While Mirvis did not attempt to dissuade anyone from voting for the Labour Party, he urged: “I ask every person to vote with their conscience. Be in no doubt, the very soul of our nation is at stake.”

The chief rabbi’s intervention reflects concern felt by many Jews regarding Corbyn’s record and the attitudes of some Labour Party members. According to one poll in September 2018, more than 85% of British Jews thought the party leader was anti-Semitic.

Other faith leaders have joined the chief rabbi’s statement. Hours after Mirvis’ comments, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, without referring explicitly to the Labour Party, posted on Twitter: “That the Chief Rabbi should be compelled to make such an unprecedented statement at this time ought to alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews. They should be able to live in accordance with their beliefs and freely express their culture and faith.”

Another well-known rabbi in Britain, Jonathan Romain, who belongs to the Reform Judaism tradition, has gone further than the chief rabbi, writing to all members of his community to vote for whoever is best placed to defeat Labour.

“Normally I would say nothing about party politics,” said Romain, “but on this occasion sadly normal considerations don’t apply.”

Rabbi Romain’s community is made up of about 820 households spread across a dozen parliamentary constituencies to the west of London and includes several constituencies where Labour candidates are defending their majorities.

“I expected a backlash from my own community,” he said, “but virtually everybody said it was time to take a stand. Some Labour supporters within the synagogue have also resigned from the party over anti-Semitism, and it has been a real wrench for them to leave.”

The row over anti-Semitism in the party has had consequences for the party already in this election. Two long-serving Jewish Labour M.P.s, Ian Austin and Dame Louise Ellmann, quit the party earlier this year and so are not defending Labour-held seats in this election.

Another Jewish former Labour M.P., Luciana Berger, who quit the party in February and is now a Liberal Democrat candidate, has said that during her last meeting with Corbyn she had mentioned that Facebook group posts were littered with anti-Semitic posts, all citing the Labour leader’s name and photo. In a post on Twitter on Nov. 25, she wrote: “Nothing was done about it following our meeting.

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Source: Religion News Service